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Cancer survivors celebrate life

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She has fought, and won, her right to party.

And party is exactly what Shantel Beckstead, who has survived two bouts of cancer and one bone marrow transplant, chose to do Friday evening at the 4th annual Luau of Life.Along with almost 200 fellow bone marrow transplant survivors and more than 700 friends and family, Beckstead spent nearly four hours lounging in the sun, scarfing on genuine Pacific Island food, and enjoying live music reminiscent of Don Ho or Jimmy Buffett.

Former patients of the program, which is offered to cancer sufferers at the University of Utah, LDS, and Primary Children's hospitals, were reunited throughout the evening with nurses, doctors and fellow survivors. Some of the reunions, especially for recent patients, included tear-filled thanks and shouts of joy, while veteran survivors, such as Beckstead, appreciated the opportunity to report about their normal, healthy lives.

In Beckstead's case, she got to share her dreams of someday becoming a nurse and giving to others the same quality care she once received. It also gave her a chance to celebrate life with others who understand how she once suffered, without dredging up painful memories.

"No one remembers the bad," she said.

That is exactly the reason the event was started in the first place, said Elizabeth Finlinson, who has organized the event for the past three years.

"It's such a big deal to be a survivor, because they go through a lot," Finlinson said.

The luau also provides the staff an opportunity to witness the results of their work.

"It's a real shot in the arm for the staff," she said.

Kathy Boben, a nurse who has worked in both the U. and Primary Children's transplant programs, agreed.

"It's absolutely wonderful to see these former patients out here, full of vitality," Boben said. "It keeps you going and allows you to go back to work knowing you can really help."

Seeing veteran survivors has great benefits for recent patients, as well.

"Cure's a long word in cancer recovery," said Pam Brooks, whose husband Ken received a transplant in April. "It can really sneak back up on you when you don't expect it."

Celebrating everyone's good health, or celebrating period, provides a huge benefit to anyone who is fighting or recovering from cancer because it boosts their spirit and willpower.

"It's mind over matter," Ken Brooks said. "If you're mentally strong, the chances are much better that you will beat the cancer."

Although celebrations come in many forms, the luau theme held a special meaning this year because a recent survivor, Phlefano Galeai, hails from Hawaii.

Galeai made the trip from his homeland to Salt Lake City strictly for the event. He also organized his extended family, many of whom live in Utah, to host the event. That included the cooking, live music and hula dancing.

It was Galeai, however, who provided the finale with a traditional Polynesian fire dance - his first public one since recovering.

"It's vital to have a party and celebrate everyone's life," Galeai said.